It seemed to me that all over the world intelligent people were waking up to the indignity and absurdity of being endangered, restrained, and impoverished, by a mere uncritical adhesion to traditional governments, traditional ideas of economic life, and traditional forms of behavior, and that these awaking intelligent people must constitute first a protest and then a creative resistance to the inertia that was stifling and threatening us. These people I imagined would say first, We are drifting; we are doing nothing worth while with our lives. Our lives are dull and stupid and not good enough. Then they would say, What are we to do with our lives? And then, Let us get together with other people of our sort and make over the world into a great world-civilization that will enable us to realize the promises and avoid the dangers of this new time. H.G. Wells- The Open Conspiracy

So I had nothing to do today, and I decided, ‘ hey, I’ll go swing a sledgehammer at a hornet’s nest! ‘

and it goes like this…

When you look at the history of the internet you find, perhaps not so suprisingly, that a lot of the seminal guys involved in online media were also tied up in magick and conspiracy theory as well. Whenever some sort of dramatic new innovation is appearing chances are there will be some variation on the shaman figure cobbling it together in the background, whether he or she is conscious of that role or not. Sometimes they are very much so. Mark Pesce is one of them. And for our purposes, Joe is the other.

Now when you’re talking about one of the grand wizards of the internet, it’s hardly suprising that his presence online is pretty strictly managed, so it’s hard to get a lot of background on Joe, which is compounded by the games he likes to play with it, but there’s enough. I can visualize someone like us, back in the day, when the internet was first picking up steam, who for whatever reason is able to cultivate relationships with all kinds of delightful counterculture characters. I’m talking, in particular, Hakim Bey, Nick Herbert, Robert Anton Wilson, and Dr. Christopher S. Hyatt, among others.

Now I can’t track down all the sources anymore, but young Joe cultivated an interest in two particular esoteric fields. One was ‘metadata’ or what you might call the archetypal informational structure of the universe, what is sometimes called the akashic record. It’s not hard to imagine why an information technology student would be attracted to the idea that reality might have an underlying code. The other field was ethnomethodology, which is essentially the study of how people understand the world and implement that understanding.

Now let me step back for second. Maybe you’ve heard of Ong’s Hat? Maybe not, but the core documents are worth a read simply as entertainment. Now, if you’ve done that, read a little bit by Hakim Bey. The style of writing of the mysterious author of these conspiracy documents, and the elusive poetic terrorist are awfully similar aren’t they? Which makes sense, since Bey has essentially admitted to writing them.

Okay then. So what Joe does, back in the day, is to take that fictional seed, and use it in a kind experiment on the emerging culture of bulletin boards, now the internet. What you do is take the faux-conspiracy documents, and build up just enough ambiguous evidence around them that it becomes nearly impossible to sort what is real from what is not, especially when Joe can carefully manage what is fed into the emerging internet on the topic.

Now leaving aside the content of the Ong’s Hat mythos itself, Joe’s experiment seems to have blown up in his face a little bit. It appears he was subject to harassment, paranoid delusions, stalking, bizarre synchronicities which may have led him to wonder whether his ‘fictional’ story was as fictional as it seemed. Under these circumstances, it’s not suprising that Joe seemingly engaged in some pretty intense and heavy handed efforts to secure his privacy and sanity. Fair game, I say. But it doesn’t stop there.

I’ll leave OH for now, and concentrate on the Maestro. By the looks, he took what he learned from that experiment, for good or ill, and helped pioneer what is known as ‘alternate reality gaming’, using some of the same fictional themes in books as well, as well as cultivating a substantial resource base for his circle of friends and fans. He’s popped up as a facilitator for events with RAW, Bey, Rob Brezney, Genesis P. Orridge, and disseminated all kind of materials here.

And the metafictional media-hoax games continue. He’s right at the heart of the Poker Without Cards media blitz, and there’s no reason to doubt he’s a principal architect. It seems like a move to bring greater awareness of corporate/media manipulation into the mainstream, and to manufacture a latter Christian Rosenkreuz /Cogliostro figure to play with. Although the game is rather transparent by now, and probably only ‘works’ on the marks who fall prey to media as it is. So is the only way to wake people up, to punk them one more time?

As recently as 2002 he’s sat in room full of people and spent a couple hours fucking with them and treating them like ‘two-dimensional’ lab rats with his Ong’s Hat routine. Not that I’ve never done the same type of thing, or been tempted to play headgames with people, but when is enough enough?

It’s kind of like Discordianism. Some of the same people involved after all. It’s fake but it isn’t, but it is but it isn’t. It’s fun if you hold it lightly. It makes you think. It’s supposed to help free your mind. That’s what these people profess to be about, after all. Helping to free our minds, yes?

In some sense it’s like a recruiting scheme. As if one day, Joe or his friends will appear to you like Morpheus and offer you the red and blue pills. They want you to play the game and become an ‘extreme individual’ like them.By all means play the game, but don’t ever forget whose game it is…

addendum: I did want to add, on further consideration, that I do have a lot of respect and gratitude towards these people and everything they’ve done. I cannot guess where I would be without these people’s work. I simply felt it important to point out some of the duplicitous and manipulative nature of some of these activities. Not to take anything away from Joe or any of these guys. I just respectfully disagree with some of these tactics.


7 thoughts on “The “Open” Conspiracy

  1. Nice article. Three quick notes, I will post at more length later on:

    1) The original internet scene and much of the original computer scene was strongly connected to the underground: acid heads, occult buffs, assorted freaks. John Markoff recently came out with a book which tracks this history, I’ve heard, and want to read.

    2) Hakim Bey gives me slightly bad vibes, and for some reason I got the impression he’s RAW’s son.

    3) The first alternate reality game I saw or knew of was connected to the film AI, and was simply brilliant. No time to check the names but sf/slipstream author Sean Stewart was closely involved.

  2. After reading Hyatt’s Psychopath’s Bible, which I consider brilliant, I am surprised at the apparently redundant pamphlets which lead like bread crumbs to the EII. Hyatt’s work is unprecented in my humble opinion – although I fell within his target audience at the time I began studying his various texts. I guess what perplexes me is that creating an “Institute” seems to contradict his stated purpose of creating free thinking artists. Seems like EII is a kind of net to catch, coddle and fleece the pretender$. His stuff works though, do not get me wrong, just gotta know when to see if those wings (lungs etc) actually can defy gravity…

  3. There is really only one point to be made about this history lesson and it’s about the ‘stalking’ paragraph. It is worth pointing out something about this from a different POV. I didn’t even know what Ong’s Hat was until long after this stuff happened so I think I’m impartial about this story. However I did read the Ong’s Hat book and Synchronicity & the Seal and then read whatever I could find online about it. Hopefully this puts things in a slightly larger context.

    It’s hard to pin down exactly what this Ong’s Hat stuff is. For the sake of this argument we’ll call it a ‘game’ or some sort of ‘immersive fiction’. There are several justifications for this. Joseph Matheny worked on the book This Is Not A Game which refers to Ong’s Hat as the first alternative reality game (ARG). Matheny also professed interest in immersive fiction many times. Also zac calls it a game multiple times in his blogpost. I can go on but I think that suffices.

    Matheny set out the honeypot of Ong’s Hat/Incunabula. He purposefully blurred the lines of fact and fiction (as described in zac’s post.) If Ong’s Hat was a ‘game’ as claimed it was certainly an ambiguous one – i.e. some of the ‘players’ might not have realized what it was. There were certainly no rules. And the game board was also ambiguous – what was ‘in game’ or not was not clearly defined. (And it certainly seems from reading the old discussion boards that some players were actively adding territory to the ‘gameboard’. And most importantly for the discussion Matheny included HIMSELF as an element in the game.*

    IMO this is key to understanding the claims of stalking/harassment or whatever really happened. People didn’t know they were ‘playing a game’ and the absence of rules means ANYTHING is fair game.

    The other key is that Matheny and friends were actually f’ing with peoples heads (as zac describes and elsewhere) and ratcheting up people’s paranoia (sometimes pseudonymously.)

    Given these two keys it only makes sense that the players might eventually turn their attention to Matheny – he had put himself IN GAME. He was the common thread throughout Ong’s Hat so if the players felt they were being f’ed with it is obvious they would turn their attention to him. And at the point where people started looking at the ‘man behind the curtain’ he started claiming stalking and used other measures to discredit those players.

    I really hate to say it (but can’t think of a more polite way sorry) but given all this context zac’s ‘Fair game, I say’ cuts both ways. Matheny put himself in game so it only makes sense the players would look in that direction for answers eventually especially since all roads lead back in his direction. As they say it takes two to tango.

    Personally Ong’s Hat doesn’t seem in any way like a game – I use that because as a metaphor it actually has some explanatory power and because Matheny and zac use it. It was not game-like, there were no rules, no obvious playing field and most importantly no win scenario. There was no closure as is usual in games (including any ARG) or in fiction. The only ‘win’ I can see is to eat one’s way to the center of the apple and find it is hollow. The answer is that there is no answer. On the other hands I can also see it as very much a ‘you get out of it what you put into it’ situation. Other solutions are possible. However that just illustrates how ‘ungamelike’ it is.

    Just to head off the flames that I’ve seen anytime someone questions the received version of this history let me restate: I don’t know what really happened, I wasn’t there. It seems quite possible that there was something that can be called stalking or harassment or unwanted behavior of some sort. Or put it another way somebody who detected the hidden hand of the puppetmaster and concluded (for whatever reasons) that the manipulation was negative and then acted on that conclusion. I’m not sure that any of the public actions of those who tried to peek behind the curtain justifies the ‘pretty intense and heavy handed efforts’ carried out in public (like I said I wasn’t there.) I must say that these public ‘efforts’ actually just serves to increase curiosity about what is behind the curtain. Again it takes two to tango.

    And frankly I’m surprised that Matheny didn’t see this coming. Given his background and interests I would have expected him to have read Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum or at least be familiar with the ideas that informed that book. Because exactly the same thing zac describes is what happened in FP – create a too real fiction and it blows up in your face. Such is magick.

    *For more on ARG game design see which explains 3 rules for ARGs ‘he provided three rules: don’t tell anyone, don’t define the game space, and, most importantly, don’t build a game.’ Which pretty well sums up the paragraph above except for the including self in game part. Which may be why that has become a general guideline for playing ARGs ‘- Don’t peek behind the curtain. While the creators will blur the lines between the game and reality, there is a clear divider called the curtain which defines areas we should not discuss. It’s no acceptable to have open discussions about the creators of the game, true identity of the actors, companies who created game elements, or anything along those lines, until the game is over. This is simply the intention of the game creators and follows on the tradition of ARGs. ‘ I don’t know enough about ARGs to understand how the creators can not define the game space on the one hand, while on the other hand there is a clear divider called the curtain… But I mention this as food for thought.

  4. The reply above has a few things historically out of order. Applying the modern ARG rules to Ongís Hat is to put the cart before the horse. Ongís Hat precedes The Beast and ARGs proper by several years. It may be more correct to say that the ARG rules exist because of things like Ongís Hat. Also, a document appeared towards the close of the game that made it clear that if you didnít already know, and how could you not, that this was a game. I think if I remember correctly it was called the secret doc. I looked on the CD ROM and it was there. The rules are probably as they are because as Zach pointed out, Ongís Hat was probably a prototype. As far as the ĎMagic happensí attitude, I myself was a player and I donít really believe in magic per se so I canít comment on that. I do know it was used as a story element and some people seem to get territorial whenever Iíve seen magic used as an element in fiction.

  5. thanks for further “game” evidence – I didn’t recall secret.doc stating explicitly that it was a game.

    but I agree with you 100% – I don’t think I was trying to apply modern arg rules to OH, but as you say, hypothesizing that what happened w/ OH was what (or part of what) prompted the rules.

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